The democratic process in Tunisia may not be moving at a thrilling pace, and the country must still confront enormous challenges. Yet, it remains the most advanced in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Tunisia may have found the path to democracy by revisiting the experiment of Islamist and liberal intellectuals in 1919 Syria.

Tunisia may have found the path to stability and constitutional democracy by revisiting (deliberately or accidentally) the experiment of Islamist[i] and liberal intellectuals in 1919 Syria. In a sense, Tunisia has become a laboratory, an experiment, for the Arab world. But it’s not a new experiment – it is the resumption of a process that was reaching fruition 100 years ago, in Syria. And the experiment faces good odds of success; because, apart from continuing the efforts of such figures as Rashid Rida and Prince Faisal bin Hussein (son of the Sharif Ali of Mecca and leader of the Arab anti-Ottoman revolt of 1916-1918), it can build on the experiences of Europe’s Christian Democrats.

Hardline secular approaches, based on Ataturk’s post-Ottoman Syria, have perpetuated the colonially imposed cultural divide.

Hardline secular approaches, based on the model of Ataturk’s post-Ottoman Syria, have served to perpetuate the colonially imposed cultural divide, excluding a significant part of the population. The rising populist and, so-called, nationalist rejection of the European Union as articulated through the Gilets Jaunes in France or the (early) Five-Star movement in Italy have served to demonstrate that, however progressive or beneficial in the long run, cultural values matter. And they matter everywhere.

Indeed, Christianity has inspired the largest parties in post-World War 2 Europe. The experience of the Italian Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democrats or DC) or the German Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (Christian Democratic Union or CDU) – Angela Merkel’s own Party – offers a convenient comparison with how Ennahda might evolve; not because of its similarities (which are few), but because of its differences.

Islamist Movements vs. European Christian Parties                                                     

The difference between the European “Christian” parties such as the Italian DC and German CDU and Islamist movements and parties is one of inspiration versus identity. Christianity inspires the politics of the DC, for example. The DC did not emerge to defend the rights of a religious, cultural, or even political minority perceiving itself under threat. The religiously inspired party uses the values of the faith to inform and form political decisions within a pluralist and constitutional context.

It was Don Luigi Sturzo, a Roman Catholic Priest, who founded the Popular Party (PP) in 1919, which later evolved into the DC after WW2. Sturzo intended the PP to be: “inspired by the firm principles of Christianity which consecrated Italy’s great civilizing mission; [a] mission that even today, in the new order of peoples, must shine against the efforts of new forms of imperialism, against anarchist upheavals of great fallen empires in the face of socialist democracies attempting the materialization of all ideals, in the face of old sectarian liberalisms that in the strength of the organism centralized government resist the stamping currents.”

It’s no coincidence that Sturzo proposed his Catholic “third way” in 1919 – exactly when Rashid Rida rejected both Marxism and liberalism (in the economic sense), which were the dominating narratives of the period – and both threatened the role of the church in the public sphere. Yet, Sturzo’s goal was not to protect Catholics exclusively. Rather, he used Catholicism as a source of inspiration to benefit the entire community as part of a secular order.

Rashid Rida’s work wanted to revive Islam using a Salafist approach to modernize the Arab world on an Islamic basis.

Rashid Rida, and his teacher before him, Muhammad Abduh, were motivated by a pan-Arab and Muslim spirit, which targeted both Ottoman occupation and the British-French Mandates that followed. Rida’s work wanted to revive Islam using a Salafist approach (through the return to the original sources – Quran and Sunna), to modernize the Arab world on an Islamic basis. This differs from Sturzo’s model because rather than merely using faith as an inspiration, it draws religion directly into the political debate.

Rida, and his teachers before him, were reacting to the decline of the Muslim world and the rise of Europe in political, economic, and scientific fields. They were advocating for a renewal of the Umma through the acquisition of the West’s achievements while restoring Islam, purifying it from superstition and deviation.

The main reformist objective was to render the state independent of European colonial ambitions then rebuild it using the same tools that produced European supremacy.

The reformist challenge, therefore, was a semiotic process that considered the possibility of reconciling modernity and Islam, translating the products of the European Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution into an Islamic context. The main objective was to reform the state first by rendering it independent of European colonial ambitions and then by rebuilding it using the very same tools that produced European supremacy.

But, the Franco-British Mandates suffocated that vision as the modernization of society and Islam was relegated to a minor role in the newly formed post-Ottoman states. Islam was reduced to a cultural role or private religious dimension, rather than its traditional rule over the public sphere.

[Tunisia’s Advantage in State-Building—Compromise (Part 2 of 2)]

[Has COVID-19 Inoculated Tunisia Against Authoritarianism?]

[Tunisia Faces Growing Challenges on All Fronts]

Tunisia is Resolving the Ideological Conflict in the Arab World  

The main ideological conflict in the Arab world, which became especially clear as a result of the revolts of the “Arab Spring” remains one between the liberal nationalists versus the Islamic reformists. In 1919, Syria became the laboratory where that dialectic was achieving the compromise between the two competing visions that could have produced an Arab form of democracy, or at least a stabilizing political construct to encourage – instead of coerce — unity and thwart colonial ambitions.

One hundred years after that Syrian compromise, Ennahda and Tunisia have reached an opportunity to pursue the experiment. The Islamists have realized that Tunisia (as much of the Arab world itself) is split. And they have understood this thanks to their parliamentary majority. Despite having the numbers to shape Tunisian society along Islamic reformist lines, they faced resistance from large segments of the population, especially women.

In a democratic context, Ennahda had to abandon any ambitions to adopt Sharia law for constitutional or legislative purposes.

In a democratic context, Ennahda had to abandon any ambitions to adopt Sharia law for constitutional or legislative purposes. The failure of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – overthrown by the army with considerable popular consensus in 2013 after a year in power – was especially instructive.

The Tunisian Islamists decided that to remain in power they had to reach a historical compromise with the secular forces. That compromise has pushed them closer to the European model of politics inspired by the ideals of the faith, rather than dominated by these. And it’s in the interest of the secular forces to welcome this breakthrough. Neither the secular parties or the Islamists can govern by themselves.

Tunisia’s social discontent is so intense that debilitating “non-denominational” unrest and violence has become a probability.

Tunisia’s conditions are precarious and social discontent so intense to the point that debilitating “non-denominational” unrest and violence has become more of a probability than a possibility. Meanwhile, the continued instability in neighboring Libya, where “ISIS” fighters continue to find both salaries and outlets for their anger, represents a dramatic challenge to Tunisia’s security. Only national unity will allow the country to emerge whole.

Tunisia can borrow from the “Historical Compromise” to confront the political violence that spread through Italy in the 1970s. During that decade, Italian politics played out in a stalemate between the Christian Democrats and the Communist Party. Neither party could prevail over the other; and to govern and rebuild unity in the face of political terrorism, which also resulted in the kidnapping and death of a Prime Minister (Aldo Moro, 1978), forced a compromise. The Italian Communist Party (the largest in the West) decided to shift to the right of its ideological roots (“Eurocomunismo”), while many from the Christian Democratic Party moved left in order to govern with, rather than against it.

[i] The designation “Islamist” here applies only to peaceful political Islam and not to any extremist or fundamentalist interpretation of the faith. Therefore, the words ‘Islamic’ and ‘Islamist’ may be used interchangeably throughout.

Author’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series examining the democratic process in Tunisia, delving into its challenges and highlighting its exceptional progress. Part one presents Tunisia’s steps to advance the development of an Arab democracy compatible with Islam by adapting the European Christian Democratic approach. Part two will discuss how the role of Islam in society has undermined the success of that approach, yet Tunisia has found the path toward a sustainable democratic compromise.